This week, I helped Shane M. Hanlon at the American Geophysical Union (AGU) Sharing Science program give a webinar on Sciencing and Social Media. We talked about what social media platforms are, how scientists are using them, and how to integrate more effective science communication practices (for example, engagement over "information-dumping").
Following the formal component of the webinar, attendees asked so many great questions that I decided to copy them and answer them here on my blog. Fair warning, these responses include much of my personal advice, as a social media science communicator. This advice is not going to fit in all situations for all science social media users, but I hope it's helpful to folks exploring social networks as tools for communicating their science.
Watch the webinar!
Q: Realistically, when do you find the time to do all social media? Is it after-hours? Do you allocate work hours to this form of science communication? Do you delegate to lab-mates?
A: Many researchers ask me about the “time” aspect of social media. Time (or rather lack of it) is one of the most important reasons researchers give for not engaging in social media, especially blogging or Instagramming. Twitter updates take less time, but the barrage of information we get via Twitter can also draw us in and suck our time away from important things like research and teaching, more than we anticipate.
So how does a busy scientist find time to communicate via social media? Unless your employer has social media policies that prevent you from communicating online during work hours, I recommend that you (and other scientists) wrap social media into your research, writing and teaching processes throughout the day. For example, if you are already reading a research paper or creating an annotated bibliography for a literature review, tweeting or blogging about those research papers could be a great way to share your work and fulfill your research goals at the same time. If you are teaching a research-oriented university course or lab, incorporating social media into student assignments could not only help them develop communication skills, but help you get the word out about your science.
Check out #LSUcure on Instagram for examples of student sharing faculty-led course-based undergraduate research through social media assignments.
In terms of sharing research, if you have an insight during an experiment or if you are already taking photos in the field that you might use in research poster, talk or paper, why not tweet that insight or share those photos on Instagram while you are in the lab or field? You might end up getting great feedback from other researchers that will help you interpret your data. You might attract undergraduate students or graduate researchers to your lab through your Instagram postings.
In terms of outreach, if you already have microscope images or field site photos, pull some of these to tell a quick story about your research in an Instagram post. If you are already in the lab to care for your research specimens, or you have a wait step in an experiment, take a quick photo to share your research experiences with folks who've never been inside a science lab. Never underestimate the power of visualizing what may seem to you like mundane specimens, data collection processes and research equipment.
Big picture: If you can make your social media content serve multiple goals, and integrate producing content into your everyday research, writing or teaching processes, you’ll find it much easier to manage your social media time.
I’ve written about how I use social media as a scientist here.
Q: How does one start building their online following?
A: Unless you are a celebrity scientist or a scientific organization with a built-in audience, creating a new social media account doesn’t automatically mean people will follow you there. But there are ways to begin building a following more quickly.
Follow people whom you want to follow you. One of the most straightforward ways of cultivating a following is by following others. Most of the time, if you follow people whom you share interests with on Twitter, they will follow you back. Participating in online conversations for forums, for example scheduled Twitter chats or conference live-tweeting, will also help you develop a following.
Create original content regularly. Even if it’s once a month, try to be consistent and regular with your content production. Interesting, useful, practical, insightful and/or valuable content appearing on a regular basis will attract followers. At the same time, don’t feel pressure to produce content more often than you have time for.
Use hashtags. Hashtags (#hashtag) are keywords that also act as hyperlinks on most social networks including Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. By using hashtags related to your interests or field of science (like #scicomm for science communication, #microbiology, etc.), you’ll attract followers who actively monitor these hashtags.
Q: Are there ever issues with privacy? Do you have to get permission from your lab-mates or PI to use images? Or is it a free-for-all?
A: Privacy and copyright are definitely issues you should be aware of when using social media, but they typically aren’t the automatic barriers you might think. For example, while you can’t just use any image you find via a Google search in your social media posts (because every image is copyrighted at the moment of creation), there are many sources of Public Domain and Creative Commons images you can use instead. Creative Commons designates images that creators have given others license to use under certain conditions (typically non-commercially and with attribution to the original creator). Find images you can use without violating copyright on .gov sites (like cdc.gov), Wikimedia and Flickr Creative Commons
[Video: Can you use that image?]
If you are a university researcher, you typically retain ownership over your scientific research results, including data, visuals, figures, etc., and have freedom to use them as you wish. (Check with your institution to be sure.) If you are an undergraduate or graduate researcher, it’s best practice to talk with your faculty advisor or lab manager to ensure that posting your scientific images, data or figures to social media isn’t an issue, especially when it comes to unpublished datasets.
On the flip side, figures from your published research papers often “belong” to the journals you published with (unless you publish open access), so you’ll need to obtain copyright permission to post those exact figures on social media. However, the data from your papers isn’t copyrighted, so you could always reproduce figures or visualize your data in different ways for blog posts, etc., without violating copyright.
Check out Figshare as a tool to share preliminary scientific data, images or visuals online with an assigned DOI, such that others will need to cite these if they use them.
Q: If you are trying to expand social media in your university department or college, what is the work flow for submission of material by others?
A: This is a great question. Many university communicators and public information officers, including myself (I'm a science communication specialist for the LSU College of Science), find that the most difficult part of their job is simply getting researchers to share their work with us. Some researchers see talking to the media or posting to social media as “bragging.” It can help foster a culture of sharing and science communication within your department or college. Find researchers who are already present on social media or great at sharing their work with a broader audience, and encourage them to be advocates among their peers. I’ve also found that rarely do I contact a researcher directly to contribute a post to our college science blog, or a picture for our Instagram account, and have them decline to contribute.
Having a central submission process (e.g. a submission form on your website or science blog) or even just raising awareness among your researchers that they should contact you if they have anything to share, can also help.
So if you manage social media accounts for your science institution, try contacting your researchers directly for contributions, developing a culture of sharing through wide participation and buy-in from your department chairs, deans or admins, and highlighting the benefits of science communication for your members/faculty.
Q: What about the social media ethics principles?
A: Love this question! Effective use of social media for science also involves using social media ethically. I often encourage people to verify information before passing it along, especially because preventing the spread of misinformation in the first place is much more straightforward then trying to correct misinformation once it’s out there, which can be VERY difficult (including correcting yourself). As much as possible, I avoid retweeting or sharing articles that I haven’t read fully. Other aspects of using social media ethically include intentionally incorporating diverse voices, being mindful about using strong persuasion techniques (for example, appealing to fear in communicating about climate change), avoiding attributions of blame or assuming motivations behind people’s communication messages, and being honest and transparent about your own communication goals, background, credentials, etc.
Q: How do you manage a heterogeneous audience?
A: These questions are banging! This question is easier to answer than it is to put into practice. The good news is that social media is already geared toward communicating to “niche” audiences. Your audience on Twitter is very likely to be different from your audience on Instagram or Facebook. You can use these audience differences to begin to segment your communications, based on platforms, to communicate to your different target audiences. For example, I help create both Twitter and Instagram content for the LSU College of Science. I might share some of the same stories on both platforms, but we cater our Twitter communications toward our faculty and graduate students, for example sharing their work and resources for them. We gear our Instagram messages toward our undergraduate students, for example to get them excited about undergraduate research or our different degree program offerings.
You can also segment your audience through things like hashtags. Even if multiple different audiences follow your Twitter account, for example, it’s highly unlikely that each of those audiences will engage in the same way with your different tweets. You may tweet at particular times of the day, use particular language (technical vs. non-technical), or use particular hashtags to reach different audiences at different times, even with the same social media account. The only danger would be alienating one of your audiences while speaking to another – so you have to be cognizant of how any audience could or would interpret each of the social media messages you post.
A more difficult aspect of catering to different audiences is the time involved. For example, it takes more time to write both a technical summary and a lay summary of each of your research papers, for example one for your research colleagues who follow you, and one for non-experts who follow you. That’s why it’s important to critically think about who your target audiences actually are before you communicate your science via social media.
Q: I recently started to incorporate informal science communication skills in my undergraduate climatology courses. As part of this, students are required to write science blog articles about climate change. Do you have a few tips for them as they are just getting started, particularly in a politically charged environment?
A: Communicating about politicized science topics is particularly challenging. I would refer these students to literature related to how people process information about climate change, and what we know works better, in terms of climate change communication, based on environmental psychology.
Here are some general science blogging tips.
Q: Who reads science blogs?
A: Great question! Shameless plug: I conducted a study on who reads science blogs last year, and the results are published here.
Q: How "bad" is it to have a social media account (Twitter, Instagram) but not post to it very often? Is it "damaging" to a reputation to only post, say, 1-2x/month?
A: Especially if you are representing a scientific organization or institution, there are risks involved with creating a social media account that you allow to become outdated. For example, if we created an LSU College of Science Twitter but rarely posted to it, prospective students or faculty members might become frustrated by not getting responses from us, and our reputation and/or recruiting might suffer due to a lack of regular updates.
As an individual scientist or researcher, infrequent posting is unlikely to be damaging to your reputation, but it may lead to fewer followers and interaction with your social media posts. Consistent social media posting (e.g. a few times a week for Instagram or Twitter, once a month or so for blogging) is more likely to lead to positive benefits. For example, if you are a researcher posting to Instagram to attract prospective undergraduate students to your lab, you are far more likely to attract their interest and have students contact you directly if you post on a more regular basis, as opposed to haphazardly every few weeks or months.
Q: What would you say to those who are worried about their new social media presence opening them up to a new level of scrutiny? How do you deal with “trolls”? How do you deal with negative backlash? (i.e. the revenge of the comment section). What do you do if your post is taken out of context by the media?
A: Researchers are often worried about this aspect of using social media. I would argue, though, that scientists in particular already deal with high levels of scrutiny or critical feedback, for example from colleagues, peer-reviewers, etc. Developing a social media presence can just as easily open you up to positive feedback, collaboration and rewarding outreach experiences. As an individual, you are in complete control over your own social media content – you can post only what you are comfortable posting, and you can make your social media accounts private at first if you are nervous about the potential reach of your content. As long as you stop and “think before you tweet,” you’ll likely be pleasantly surprised by how overwhelmingly positive your social media experiences can be. This has been my experience across the board.
I recommend not engaging “trolls,” or individuals who seem to have no intention of processing the information you are providing in an unbiased manner or listening to you, but rather are responding to you or commenting on your blog simply to start an argument. Responding and/or arguing with these individuals is often pointless, if they truly have no intention of listening. If you are the recipient of “trolling” on Twitter, it’s perfectly justifiable to simply not respond or to block people who are being uncivil. (But never respond in anger!)
If you maintain a blog, the best practice is to have a “commenting policy” written out somewhere on your site where you can explain the type of comments you’ll be removing (e.g. obscenity, etc.) Just be transparent and fair in how you deal with comments or mentions on your social media channels.
Finally, there’s always a danger of your social media posts being taken out of context. This is more likely for Facebook or Twitter posts, which are often short updates that are part of a larger conversation. I personally try to include as much information as I can in each of my social media updates, including hyperlinks, to avoid their being taken out of context. I also try to string my tweets together, for example (by replying to my own tweets if I’m trying to say something that requires more than 140 characters), to make sure individual tweets are also seen as part of the larger conversations they belong to. It’s also important to remember that short messages like tweets will be seen and may be retweeted individually, so avoid making statements within a tweet that can only be understood within a larger paragraph, story or context.
Q: Have you had success communicating your science through Snapchat? It seems pretty topical and aimed at a much younger audience.
A: I don’t have personal experience communicating science through Snapchat, but I’m actively exploring Instagram (including Snapchat-like Instagram stories) as a science communication tool. Emerging social media platforms are exciting venues for science communication to the extent that they can be leveraged to reach new audiences. The catch is using these platforms for their unique strengths and creating native content for them, as opposed to “copy and pasting” content from more traditional venues.
Here are some up-to-date stats on U.S. adult social media use: Pew Social Media Update 2016
I recently helped teach a SciFundChallenge.org online course on using Instagram for science communication – all the course material is available here.
Q: Have you found truth to recommendations on best time of day to post on social media?
A: I’m always cautious about those types of recommendations, because the real answer to “When is the best time of day to post on social media?” is always “It depends.” It depends on your audience. To enhance engagement (shares, comments, likes, etc.), you want to post to social media while your target audience is also on social media and prepared to engage. If I’m in the U.S. and my target audience is international, I might wait until late in the evenings to start asking questions on Twitter and engaging in conversations.
To encourage more viewers to read your blog posts, for example, you ideally want to publish your posts at times when your target audience is online or checking their e-mail, and ideally when they might have time to read your latest post. However, mobile devices are changing social media consumption patterns. We are just as likely to read a blog post while we are waiting in line for an afternoon coffee as during more extended “down time” in the evenings or on the weekends.
“What works for one blog might not work for yours – and even if we see averages from hundreds of millions of posts, there’s always a chance that your audience will have different consumption habits, or that you will find your own blog to have a different publishing time that works best.” – Karen, StartBloggingOnline.com
Q: Crowdfunding seems to mainly reach friends & family for donations. Any recommendations on how to move past this group for crowd-funding?
A: This question came up in a discussion about how social media can be leveraged for crowdsourcing information and crowdfunding scientific research. I’ve written about how, in my experience, a strong social media presence is helpful when crowdfunding science here.
Our science crowdfunding campaigns primarily reach the people we have personal connections with, either directly or indirectly (like friends of friends). Hence the power of a large social network. If you have a small social media following or if you use your private Facebook account to promote a crowdfunding campaign, it’s going to reach your closest friends and family first, and those people are also statistically the most likely to give. Most people who give to small science-oriented crowdfunding campaigns (like mine here) give because they know or know of the researcher running the campaign. They might also give if they have similar science interests or are particularly passionate about the area of science in question.
I most recently raised over $6,000 for a science blogging research study. The backers certainly went beyond my friends and family, but I had interacted with most of the 79 individuals who helped back the project, at least through social media channels. Most of the backers were other scientists, science communicators and science bloggers. I also received a few large contributions after appealing to several scientific publishers and blogging outlets for help. But in the end, the people who know you and believe in what you are doing are most likely to be your first backers. If your campaign gains enough momentum, you may capture the attention of more distant connections or people on social media whom you aren’t connected to but who might share your interests.
Have questions about using social media for science communication? Ask away!